Steve Stulman: Helping enhance Israeli passion for Judaism

Over the past 17 years, The Julius Stulman Foundation, which Steve established, has been supporting numerous grass-root communities and organizations.

 Steve Stulman. (photo credit: NOAM GALAI)
Steve Stulman.
(photo credit: NOAM GALAI)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A retired American businessman, long-time Zionist and active philanthropist, Stephen (Steve) Stulman still has a lot on his mind. What keeps this 90-year-old New Yorker up at night is what he sees as the failure of Israel’s leaders to appreciate the importance of perceptions. “There are biased activists on both extremes; but most Americans, Jews and non-Jews, really know very little about Israel.”

As such, Stulman has dedicated much of his life to understanding what makes Israelis tick. He made the first of 65 visits to Israel in 1964 and has been deeply involved with a wide variety of Israeli activities ever since. “My generation mostly went on organized ‘missions’ and fell in love with Israel. I went on my own and made friends with Israelis; which is a very different thing. It is easy to become disillusioned with an abstraction; but friendships allow for argument and complexity. We need to see and hear less about Israel and more about Israelis.” 

In an hour-long conversation, Stulman shared some of his concerns and why he is trying to help Israelis reconnect with their Jewish Heritage. “Twenty years ago, when I heard my Israeli friends saying, ‘our choice is between orthodoxy and secularism,’ I said there must be an alternative. If Israel is to be a democratic Jewish state, then Judaism must be seen as non-authoritarian, pluralistic, egalitarian, joyful, meaningful and relevant to life in Israel today. The real question for Israelis is not who is a Jew but who is a rabbi.”

Over the past 17 years, The Julius Stulman Foundation, which Steve established with a legacy from his father (who helped ship arms to the Hagana from New York in early 1948), he has been supporting numerous grass-root communities and organizations, especially those seeking to create a new “Israeli Judaism,” such as Nigun Halev, in Nahalal; Beit Tefilah Israeli, in Tel Aviv, which sponsors Kabbalat Shabbat at the Port; and the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, a joint project of the Hamidrasha Educational Center in Oranim and The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. 

 Hillel students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Hillel Center on Mount Scopus. (credit: ZVI ZELINGER) Hillel students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Hillel Center on Mount Scopus. (credit: ZVI ZELINGER)

“There is an enormous amount of individualism among Israelis; everyone focuses on their differences. From the perspective of 6,000 miles, I look at what they have in common. I try to pick the best people and give them support, guidance and encouragement.”

Last May, the Stulman Foundation publicly offered a Grant of $100,000 for the best Proposal to “Advance Israeli Judaism.” Ninety-five Proposals were submitted. Stulman read them all and made his personal selection. Inspired by the breadth and quality of the proposals, and by the teaching of his mentor at Yale, Martin Buber, who said,”Do what you can do” and the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “Do more,” Stulman felt compelled to step up and award seven grants totaling some $500,000.

The grant recipients were announced in October during a Zoom Meeting which included messages of appreciation from President Isaac Herzog, Knesset Member Gilad Kariv and former MK Ruth Calderon. The winning grant of $100,000 went to Hillel Israel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, currently active on seven Israeli college campuses. “My life was changed when Buber came to speak at Yale University; I know how exposure to new ideas can impact young people at that stage in their lives,” says Stulman.  

“The two pillars of Hillel’s work are pluralism and peoplehood,” says Hillel’s Executive Director, Rabbi Noga Brenner-Samia. “Israeli Judaism needs to be about multiple diverse approaches and voices in Jewish life. We need to make it more inclusive, vibrant, inspiring and egalitarian.” This grant will be used to offer more courses, to more undergrads, on more campuses and offer them a portal to Israeli Judaism.” Brenner-Samia adds, “Steve gives us the courage to go further, to strive for more visibility, even to do something risky.”

Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, another grantee and co-founder of Beit Tefilah Israeli, agrees. ‘Steve is a revolutionary. It’s amazing that for the last 17 or 18 years he has seen beyond our needs – he has the ability to foresee the needs that you don’t recognize yourself.” Gottfried received a grant of $90,000 to create a new television Internet channel which will make Israeli Judaism more understandable and accessible to the public. “The Diaspora Judaism we have had for the last 2,000 years doesn’t apply to our reality today. We need a way of Judaism that is open and reflects democratic values. This can come in a variety of ways – through study, experience, community action or music. We want to show it all in a place where everyone can learn.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, founder of Congregation Zion in Jerusalem, sees Stulman as a “grand-father of Israeli Judaism.” Appelbaum shared a $90,000 grant with Rabbi Rani Jaeger, co-founder of Beit Tefilah Israeli and a Fellow of the Hartman Institute. Together, they propose to gather from around the world, and also create, Jewish rituals for life-cycle events, holidays and communities, and put them on a web site, making them understandable and accessible to the public. “The People of Israel are a family; Israeli Judaism is a way to bring the family back together.”

“People are constantly looking for meaning in tradition, especially in important milestones in their lives. There’s so much good information available online, but there isn’t one overarching platform that offers organized and relevant information about our heritage and traditions from the past,” Jaeger explains. “Jewish Israelis are looking for ways to tap into Jewish life and they don’t know how. We wanted a simple and effective way of doing this.” 

A third major grant went to Prof. Eyal Regev, director of the School of Basic Studies at Bar Ilan University. He proposes to create an accredited, egalitarian, pluralistic Beit Midrash, exposing students to the many faces of Judaism today and finding new ways to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to students of all backgrounds.

Other winners were: The Yaakov Herzog Center, for their new initiative, developed by Yonatan Dobov, an entrepreneur and social activist in Rehovot, which aims to support Southern periphery communities composed largely of recent immigrants to bring Jewish culture and tradition into their lives; Arevot, a Jerusalem based organization of women seeking to bring Sephardi-Mizrachi voices into public spaces and discourses; and Minyan, a proposal by Oz Fishman and Lipaz Ela, two young urban designers and educators in Tel Aviv, to host a series of meaningful Friday Night Dinners for young people.

Stulman notes that many of the proposals speak of “how deeply fragmented and worryingly divided the country has become, and the great need to bring people together.”

“The solution begins with understanding the question”, says Stulman. “Genuine community is not created simply by bringing people together. Identity, history, tradition, land, survival…these are not enough. As Buber understood, there must be a common purpose. There must be meaning, purpose and a vision. That is what Judaism is all about. Judaism is not about what Jews believe or even what they do; Judaism is what Jews believe they should do… a shared responsibility.”  

In regard to American Jews’ role in this dynamic, Stulman answers, “Unfortunately, Zionism and Judaism have become detached. When young American Jews face Jerusalem, they see clearly the reality of an Israeli state, but less so the dream of a Jewish Homeland. Judaism without Zionism is self-destructive; but Zionism without Judaism is meaningless” 

That said, Stulman is hopeful. “Zionism, like Judaism, is an evolving process. Perhaps we are on the verge of the next stage, a reconnection between Zionism and Judaism…. perhaps a ‘Judaic Zionism.’ Tribal and family division has been part of our story from the beginning; and all the world now suffers from the same. Maybe this is now our great challenge. In striving for internal unity we may find our true purpose. In embracing our heritage we may find our destiny.”

In any event, Stulman plans to keep busy with a finger on the pulse of each recipient organization’s progress. 

“In 1968 I brought together young Jewish leaders from around the world to meet their Israeli peers in an Economic Conference on the grounds of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot,” Stulman recalls “When it ended, I took an evening walk in the garden behind Weizmann’s home; I looked up at the stars and knew that I was doing what I was meant to do There are three types of people: those who create, those who take things apart and those who put things together. I am in the last category; I like connecting.”  ■